Monday, February 15, 2010

The Synoptic Problem: Part 4 Solutions to the Synoptic Problem

Solutions to the Synoptic Problem
            There are many solutions offered for the Synoptic Problem.  As stated previously, the parameters of this project do not allow for a fuller treatment of these solutions.  I will review the four most common solutions offered.  I will also discuss the so-called source “Q” that has been proposed to have existed as a source used by the Gospel writers.  In addition, I will also briefly discuss the evidence in support of Markan priority.
Common Dependence on One Original Gospel
            In 1771 G. E. Lessing, a German writer and literary critic, argued that the relationships between the Synoptic Gospels could be explained if the writers independently used one original gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic.  The uses of some sort of “Ur-gospel” was adopted by others and was later modified by J. G. Eichhorn who hypothesized the existence of several lost gospels that were used as sources for the writers of the Synoptic Gospels.  Notable is the fact that no such “Ur-gospel” has yet been discovered.  Carson and Moo state that this position has not met with much favor in the last hundred years[1].
Common Dependence on Oral Sources
            Shortly after Lessing proposed the independent use of a “Ur-gospel” by the Gospel writers, J. G. Herder argued in 1797 the dependence of the Synoptic Gospels on a fixed oral tradition summarizing the life of Christ better fit the available data.  German scholar J. K. L. Gieseler expanded and defended this view at length in 1818.  This view was more popular in the 19th century than it is today though it does continue to be supported by a small number of scholars[2]
Common Dependence on Gradually Written Fragments
            Controversial theologian F. Schleiermacher suggested that several fragments of the gospel tradition were in existence in the early church.  These fragments, Schleiermacher argued, grew until they were incorporated into the Synoptic Gospels.  An important note is that Schleiermacher was the first to argue that Papias’s “logia” refers to one of these fragments as a part of a collection of sayings.  With the discovery of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, we do know that such collections of sayings did exist in antiquity but this thesis is no longer argued in this form[3]
            The last of the four most common solutions to the Synoptic Problem states that two of the Gospel writers used one or more of the Gospels in writing his own.  Interdependence has been urged as the solution to the Synoptic Problem from the early days of the church.  Carson and Moo rightly point out that the view of interdependence commands almost universal assent among contemporary New Testament scholars with good reason[4].  There are numerous theories of interdependence that have been advanced over the years.  Here I will focus on four of them that have received the most attention by scholars. 
            The Augustinian Proposal.  As early as the fourth century, Augustine was proposing that Matthew’s Gospel must have been written first, Mark then summarized Matthew’s Gospel, followed some time later by Luke who used both Matthew and Mark in his Gospel account[5].  This view is not currently in favor with modern scholars with a few notable exceptions[6].  This view was widely held until the late nineteenth century among those who saw a literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels.  The Augustinian proposal also has the support of the early church fathers including Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome who accepted the priority of Matthew very early in church history.  A variation of the Augustinian proposal that was popular with Roman Catholic held that Matthew was originally written in Aramaic and when it was translated to Greek, the translator adapted some of the language used in Mark and Luke which were already in Greek.
The “Two Gospel” Hypothesis.  One of the variations of the Augustinian proposal was offered by J. J. Griesbach (1745-1812) who accepted Augustine’s proposal as to the priority of Matthew but believed that Luke was next in order followed by Mark’s Gospel which was simply an abbreviation of Matthew and Luke.  More recently, William R. Farmer published his book The Synoptic Problem[7]reintroducing an idea from the family of literary-dependence suggesting the priority of Matthew’s gospel followed by Luke who used Matthew.  According to Farmer, Mark comes next using both Matthew and Luke to complete his shorter Gospel account.  Farmer’s convincing defense of his position has continued for several decades[8].  Some, such as Grant Osborne, remain unconvinced pointing out the flaws in Farmer’s arguments such as the many omissions if Mark used Matthew and Luke as the source for his Gospel and the fact that Luke would be almost entirely dependent on Matthew in spite of the fact that Luke clearly states he used multiple sources (Luke 1:2)[9].
The Two Source Hypothesis Featuring Q.  In the two-gospel hypothesis, Matthew and Luke are the sources used by Mark to create his Gospel.  The two source hypothesis holds that Mark and a now lost source “Q” (short for Quelle, the German word for “source”).  Q is believed to be a written source containing the sayings of Jesus.  The strength of the two source hypothesis lies in the explanations offered regarding the materials, both shared and unshared, in their Synoptic Gospels.  Of course, as with the other solutions offered for the Synoptic Problem, there are weaknesses with the two source hypothesis including the exceptions to the patterns found in the similarities and the fact that the existence of Q is purely hypothetical.
Markan priority is widely accepted though in recent years there have been challenges to this position.  Streeter’s so-called Fourth Head of Evidence – that Matthew and Luke improve Mark’s more primitive wording – remains one of the strongest arguments for Markan priority to date.  Examples to improvements to more primitive wording such as phrases that might cause offense, suggest difficulties, or eliminate redundancies include Mark 1:32 and 6:5.  In fact, B. C.  Butler, a defender of the Two-Gospel Hypothesis agrees that Streeter’s Fourth Head of Evidence supports the priority of Mark to the exclusion of other solutions[10].
            Any review of the two source hypothesis, no matter how brief, would not be complete without taking time to discuss Q.  For the new student of the New Testament, all of this discussion of Q is a bit exciting.  What a wonderful document filled with the sayings of our Lord and Savior used by more than one of the Gospel writers to complete their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.  There is one problem with this document.  Not a single copy of such an important document has been found.  Not even a fragment to document its existence!  This lack of evidence has not stopped some scholars from creating an entire history of the Gospel of Q.  Mark Goodacre rightly criticizes the recent books on the topic as virtually ignoring the fact that Q remains a hypothetical abstract[11].  To be clear, there is not even a mention of Q in the ancient literature. 
            Other reasons for questioning the existence of Q include the lack of other documents from antiquity that look like Q[12].  While it is true that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas provides a parallel for interest in collecting the sayings of Jesus, Q is credited with containing narrative material that the Gospel of Thomas clearly lacks.  Such collections may have even been the beginning of a written tradition during the oral transmission period previously discussed but it certainly does not provide the basis for the existence of Q.
            Still, the supposed existence of Q and the two source hypothesis does seem to answer more problems than it creates which, I am fast learning, is rather rare with studies of the Synoptic Problem.  Variations of this hypothesis such as Streeter’s four source hypothesis[13], Oxford hypothesis, Markan priority, etc. appear to be in a state of constant flux to the new student of New Testament studies.

[1] Carson, D A, and Douglas J Moo. An Introduction To The New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, pp. 77-284).
[2] IBID
[3] IBID
[4] IBID
[5] Drane, John. Introducing the New Testament. (Oxford: Lion Publishing PLC, 1999, pp. 182-195). 
[6] Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.  Wenham puts forward a somewhat similar view while placing a strong emphasis on the idea of independence.  Wenham’s argument, which dates all three Synoptic Gospels prior to 70 A.D., warrants close examination and certainly helps to explain more of the difficulties associated with the Synoptic Problem than a later dating.  Wenham, along with B. C. Butler, is considered one of the strongest supporters of the Augustinian proposal in the twentieth century.
[7] Farmer, William R. The Synoptic Problem. Dillsboro: Western North Carolina Press, 1976.
[8] Black, David Allen, and David R. Beck. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
[9] IBID
[10] Thomas, Robert L. Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002.
[11] Goodacre, Mark. The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2002.  Goodacre presents a good argument for dating Matthew and Luke after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. though he does not effectively explain why neither Gospel clearly discusses the destruction.  Instead, Goodacre briefly mentions that the Gospels infer the destruction of the Temple has occurred. 
[12] Drane, John. Introducing the New Testament. Oxford: Lion Publishing PLC, 1999.
[13] Streeter, B. H. The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins. London: Macmillan and Co., 1924.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Christians should not be surprised that authors of some of the books in the New Testament "plagiarized" the writings of other New Testament authors, ie, the authors of Matthew and Luke copying huge chunks of Mark, often word for word, into their own gospels.

This habit is not new in the Bible. There is evidence that Old Testament writers did the exact same thing. An example: the entire chapters of II Kings 19 and Isaiah 37 are almost word for word identical!

If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, why would God have the author of one inspired book of the Bible copy almost word for word large sections, sometimes entire chapters, from another inspired book of the Bible? Is that how divine inspiration works?

So should we simply accept this "word for word copying" as the will of the Almighty, accepting it blindly by faith, continuing to insist that God wrote the Bible, or should we consider the overwhelming evidence that the books of the Bible are human works of literature, no more divinely inspired than any other work of fallible human authors?